While the Dolly migration might not be at its peak, there are certainly enough fish in rivers to keep you looking for more.
I enjoy Dolly fishing that incorporates a bit of a hunt for the fish, rather than finding hordes in every pool and other spot with slow moving water. I’m a lot more entertained when I have to search a little and work a little for my fish.
Catching a fish on every cast is fun for a while, but it can grow old, too. Even so, it’s sure fun when you run across it after a long winter without fishing.
Sea-run Dolly Varden spend the winter in lakes. Their appetite slows with the colder water but even so, by spring they’re skinny and weak. The outcome is that as the waters warm in spring, they’re ravenous.
Their run downriver to the ocean is timed to match the migration of salmon fry along the same route. But if the Dollies are weak, that’s nothing compared to the salmon fry.
When salmon fry first emerge from the streambed gravel, they’re so weak they can do little more than drift along with the current. They tend to stick to the calmer margins where they are easy prey for all sorts of hungry mouths.
And of course, those weak Dollies like the stream margins, too.
If you think about it a moment, you can pretty well define the most effective fishing strategies and locations for migrating spring Dollies.
Concentrate on the slower water, especially the stream margins. Be careful about walking directly up to the shallow water, just so you can cast out into the deeper water mid-river.
The best stretches for finding salmon fry are shallows with lots of overhanging alders. If the alders overhang and there is a scattering of larger rocks in the shallows, so much the better.
Whatever you tie on the end of your line, make sure it looks like a salmon fry.
And, since both the salmon fry and the Dollies are weak, move it slowly.
You can refine those insights and dramatically improve your success rate.
It’s important to remember that salmon fry really dislike bright light. On sunny days they confine their migration to darkness, spilling over into the early morning and late evening hours. As a result the Dollies do most of their feeding in the same periods.
The gloves come off on stormy, overcast days, however. With the lower light the salmon fry migrate all day and the Dollies respond enthusiastically. Best of all, most anglers stay home when the weather sours.
As it turns out, there’s also a hierarchy of sorts among Dolly Varden, with the biggest, fittest individuals dominating the best feeding stations in the river. If you’re selective where and how you fish, you’ll see a lot more big fish.
The bigger Dollies like the deeper holes and slow runs, but they congregate at the top ends where the currents are a little stronger.
They don’t like the strong currents, but want to be on hand as the salmon fry have to negotiate the faster water to reach the next stretch of slow water.
The ideal setup is a drop-off or large boulder just below the fast water at the head of the hole or run.
The largest Dollies will linger below the drop-off or behind the boulder waiting for the current to bring the fry to them.
I suspect you know just how to deal with that setup.
My favorite way to fish is only possible during periods of lower flows.
With the fish concentrated in the shallows and especially under the alders, the best way to fish is by wading down the middle of the river so you can cast back to the shoreline on either side.
Barring conditions that allow you to wade down the middle, second best it to concentrate on the far shoreline with longer casts. Bring lots of extra tackle because those overhanging limbs the Dollies and fry like so much are the perfect trap for errant casts.
You can certainly catch Dollies on an assortment of baits. If you like to eat them in such poor conditions and plan to keep a few fish, so be it.
But if you are fishing mostly for the fun of it and intend to release your fish, it’s a better idea to stay away from bait. The fish often swallow deeply, making it impossible for you to remove the hooks without harming them.
Spinning tackle forces you to be pretty careful in your choice of lures. Spoons will out-produce spinners by a factor of about 10 to 1.
They have to be as small as the salmon fry while light enough you can move them slowly while keeping them near the surface of the water. That narrows your choices considerably.
Crocodile spoons are marginal because they are too heavy in the same size as the salmon fry. Slow them way down, and they sink too quickly.
Fjord spoons are much better because they’re so slender. They’re just the right length without being so heavy.
I haven’t tried it yet, but my instinct is that some of the ultralight spoons intended for ice fishing may be the best choice of all.
Tossing such little spoons comes at a price, though. In my experience, 4-pound test line is too heavy for casts longer than about 30 feet. If you anticipate longer casts you may have to drop all the way down to 2-pound test line.
And of course you need tiny rods and reels to accommodate such light line. That’s the good news, because Dollies are even more fun on such light tackle.
Even better news comes in August. Those tiny rods with the light lines turn pink salmon into silver salmon when it comes to fight and fun.
Streamer flies are even better than spoons when it comes to matching the hatch of salmon fry. They look more realistic plus they’re so light it’s easy to keep them near the surface where you want them.
You don’t have to invest in a fly rod to use them. Put them two to three feet behind the lightest clear-casting bubble you can throw with your spinning rod, and they will perform almost as well as when fished with a fly rod.
The only precaution is to direct your cast so that plastic bubble doesn’t land right on top of the fish. They’re spooky in shallow water and there’s nothing like the smack of something on the water to send them scurrying for cover.
If you elect to use a fly rod, so much the better.
But for the most fun, you should stick to rods no heavier than a 5-weight. You can certainly use heavier rods effectively, but the Dollies aren’t nearly so much fun to catch.
My favorites are even lighter, with the fun meter going a step higher with the move to 4-weight, then 3-weight, and even 2-weight fly rods. If there was ever a fly rod built for Dollies, it’s a 2-weight.
I’d probably go no lighter than a 3-weight, and a 4-weight is even a better choice if you’d like to use the rod for more than Dollies. A 3-weight fly rod will turn pink salmon into “silvers” just like a light spinning rod, though a 4-weight is more effective on windy days.
What flies to use? Stick to the lightweight bucktail streamers or similar styles in size 8 or 10. Best colors in order of preference for me are black/white, olive/white and brown/white.
If you haven’t managed to wet a line yet, it’s high time you did. If you have trouble locating Dollies in the river on any particular day, move up to the lake where it dumps into the river.
Hungry mouths are waiting.